A judge stopped executing a man suffering from dementia on Wednesday, who was to be killed in a second injection by the federal government this week after a 17-year hiatus after a 17-year hiatus.
Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of a cruel kidnapping and killing in 1998, was due to be executed Wednesday evening in Terre Haute, Indiana U.S. prison, where Daniel Lewis Lee was killed on Tuesday after his legal offer failed in the eleventh hour were.
District judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, DC issued two orders prohibiting the Federal Prison Office from proceeding with Purkey's execution. The Ministry of Justice immediately appealed in both cases. A separate temporary stay was already scheduled by the 7th US Court of Appeals in Chicago.
The legal dispute indicated that a number of lawsuits would continue into the evening, much like the government's execution of Lee after a Supreme Court ruling. One of the injunctions imposed on Wednesday would not only stop Purkey's execution, but another that is scheduled for Friday and one in August.
The Supreme Court ended the 7th circuit stay on Wednesday, but the others stayed in place. Purkey's execution was originally scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, but was postponed until evening because of legal issues.
Lee, convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plan to build a nation only for whites, was the first of four convicted men to die in July and August despite the coronavirus pandemic within and outside of prisons.
Purkey, 68, from Lansing, Kansas, would be the second.
"This competence problem is a very strong issue on paper," said Robert Dunham, managing director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The Supreme Court has stopped executions on the subject in the past. At least the question of whether Purkey is dying will go until the last minute. "
Judge Chutkan did not rule on whether Purkey was competent, but said the court needed to evaluate the allegation. She said there is no question that if he were killed before his claim could be evaluated, he would suffer "irreparable harm".
Lee's execution was a day late. It was scheduled for Monday afternoon, but the Supreme Court only gave the go-ahead in a 5-4 ruling early Tuesday.
On Wednesday, a federal judge repeated an application by Dustin Lee Honkin, an Iowa drug worker to be executed on Friday, to delay his execution. The judge said he would not delay Honken's execution due to the coronavirus pandemic and said the Bureau of Prisons was in the best position to weigh the health risks.
Purkey's mental health issue arose prior to his 2003 trial and when the jury had to decide whether to kill 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. Prosecutors said he raped and stabbed her, cut her up with a chainsaw, burned the body, and threw her ashes into a Kansas pond. Purkey was sentenced separately and sentenced to the lifelong death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales from Kansas City, Kansas.
But the legal questions as to whether he was mentally fit at that time differ from the question of whether he is now fit to be killed. Purkey's lawyers argue that this is clearly not the case, and recent documents say he has progressive Alzheimer's disease.
"He has long been responsible for the crime that put him on death row," said one of these lawyers, Rebecca Woodman. "But as dementia progresses, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him."
Purkey believes his planned execution is part of a conspiracy involving his lawyers, Woodman said. In other documents, they describe delusions that people sprayed poison into his room and that drug dealers implanted a device in his chest that was supposed to kill him.
While various legal issues in Purkey's case have been examined, reheated and resolved by courts over nearly two decades, "competence is something that is always in flux," said Dunham, who teaches death penalty legal courses.
In a landmark decision in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits the execution of people who lack a reasonable understanding of why he is being executed. It was the case of Alvin Ford, who was convicted of murder but whose mental health deteriorated behind bars to the point where, according to his lawyer, he believed he was pope.
"I could say I was Napoleon," said Dunham. "But if I say I understand that Napoleon has been sentenced to death for a crime and is being executed for it, it could make the execution possible."
Purkey's mental health problems go beyond Alzheimer's, his lawyers said. They say he was subjected to sexual and psychological abuse as a child and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression and psychosis at 14 years of age.
Last week, three mental health organizations asked US attorney William Barr to convert Purkey's parole to life sentence. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center said that the execution of mentally ill people like Purkey "is a cruel and unusual punishment and is not compatible with" evolving standards of decency "."
Glenda Lamont, the mother of the murdered teenager, told The Kansas City Star last year that she was planning to attend Purkey's execution.
"I don't want to say I'm happy," said Lamont. "At the same time, he's a crazy maniac who, in my opinion, doesn't deserve to breathe."
President Donald Trump's campaign campaigned for Lee's execution in an email explosion. He said the president had "provided total justice for the victims of an evil murderer" and asked his political opponent Joe Biden to explain why he is now opposed to the death penalty.
There was an unofficial moratorium on federal executions after the Obama administration ordered an investigation into a botched execution in Oklahoma in 2014.
Associate press writers Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas, and Mark Sherman and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.